There are few games that look as unappealing as Super Ninja Miner. Forget the fantastic title (he’s not only a Ninja Miner, he’s a Super one), we’re talking about the Xbox Store card and the graphics. Presentationally, Super Ninja Miner is less than attractive, looking more like bowling alley videos or a shareware game from the late ‘90s.
But what’s the saying about books and their covers? Super Ninja Miner is keen to deceive you. It might look like a university game jam game, but this is a clever title that keeps tinkering with its simple core until it hits on some cracking ideas.
You might expect Super Ninja Miner to be a riff on Spelunky from the screenshots. But it’s more akin to an ice-slider puzzle, the kind you get in adventure games or the odd budget puzzler. You can only move in the cardinal directions, and you keep moving in your chosen direction until you hit an obstacle. It’s a game mechanic that’s older than time itself. It’s on cave paintings – trust us.
Rather than large open spaces, Super Ninja Miner opts to play in corridors. So, you’re sliding around, trying to find the right path to approach first. Your aim is to gather up all the gems in the mine, which will in turn open a mineshaft that signals the exit to the level. It’s that simple.
It might seem too simple. With only a few routes around the level, you don’t have a fantastic number of options for negotiating it. The early levels seem like a warning in that sense, as you whip through 1-1, 1-2 and 1-3 in seconds. But, again, books and covers.
Super Ninja Miner is quick to start uncovering its box of ideas and start placing them on the table. Switches can be triggered which opens passageways and closes others, giving you a new wall to butt up against and access new locations. Tools can be picked up that destroy blocks of the same colour: purple pickaxes break purple, yellow hatchets break yellow, and so on. A sword can kill enemies, while remote controls trigger a lowering or heightening of the water level.
What we like most about these mechanical teabags is that they’re squeezed tightly, so that every last drop of interest and enjoyment can be gotten from them. The tools, for example, aren’t just ‘keys’ that bypass blocks. Your character effectively equips the tool, so they can break any block of that colour from now on. But pick up a different tool and the original one is dropped. Switching at the right time is essential for getting the best scores and swiftest runs.
Super Ninja Miner is so good at motivating you to replay its levels, too. There are challenges to be ticked off – complete it in fewer moves, less time, or with a greater score – which leads to achievements, of course, but also a different lens on the puzzle. How can it be done in five moves? The audacity of some of the challenges gets the mind whirring. There are stars, too, tucked in the corners of mineshafts, just begging to be picked up.
The level design is cunning and playful, too. There are levels which are almost entirely made up of blocks to be destroyed by tools, for example, which leaves you all the freedom you need to create dead-ends and get stuck with it being entirely your fault. Other levels imagine what a layout might be like if it was almost entirely constructed from switches and levers.
But our favourite innovation was the level select screen. Yep, the menu from which you pick your next level. Because they are laid out in a grid, and you unlock all the levels that are up, down, left and right from the one you’ve just finished – which is, of course, just like how the miner moves in the game. It’s so cute and appropriate, and we stroked our beard with approval.
There is a bit of a mud-sandwich forming here, as we do have some niggles with Super Ninja Miner. We’ll revisit one that we mentioned early: it’s just so darn ugly. There’s no getting around it: the plasticky, cheap looking visuals are going to put people off, and the best you can say is that at least it’s clear. There’s no confusing what the pickups are, or where you’re meant to go.
And while Super Ninja Miner is adept at remixing that simple core into new shapes, the simpleness does get wearing. We felt a fatigue drifting in as we mopped up the last levels, and that’s probably down to the sheer number of games that have used this mechanic before. Outside of box-pushing puzzles, ice-sliding puzzles are probably the most ubiquitous tool in a puzzle-designers toolbox, and levels started feeling too familiar. Plus, did we say it was ugly?
Thinking about the negative feedback prompted us to check back on the cost of Super Ninja Miner. £4.19. Boy, that really is a bargain. For that money, you’re getting forty-eight levels spanning four biomes (Treasure Island is a bastard whose challenges will take some cracking), and a constant, nagging motivation to 100% them rather than just complete them and go. We’d have loved some highscore tables or cooperative play, but sometimes we can ask for too much from our four quid.
Super Ninja Miner makes us want to commission a Kickstarter for its benefit. All it needs is an investment in its graphics, an artist to fall in love with it and give it some spit and polish. Because the presentation really is all that holds Super Ninja Miner back. If you can see past the looks to the personality beneath, there’s a rather superb little sliding puzzler residing there.
You can buy Super Ninja Miner from the Xbox Store